In Europe the struggle by Ukraine has largely been seen as a defence of universal norms. But around the world that view is far from universal.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year, there was a spike in articles praising the bravery of soldiers in Ukraine and their fight to preserve democracy. It appeared that the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts were falling short, as the public in the west saw Russian territorial claims as absurd. The United States and the European Union dismissed the clumsy and slow messaging from Moscow.
Since then, many commentators and even political analysts have argued that Ukraine is winning the information war, while Russia only continues to lose support. Perhaps this claim is valid for western countries. But a recurrent mistake is to treat narratives popular in the west as universal, as true for the whole world.
The magnitude of posts, articles and information written in English in the ‘social media’ applications most prominent in the west—Instagram, Facebook, X—obscures the reality that about two-thirds of the global population live in countries that are neutral or Russian-leaning on the war. The Kremlin’s messages have never been addressed to the general public in the west. Russia tailors its propaganda to specific demographics, targeting in particular countries in south America, Africa and the middle east.
Moscow laid the groundwork even before the invasion. Months earlier, it claimed Ukraine was led by ‘Nazis’ and that the country was in any case not legitimately sovereign but rather the subject of an unresolved territorial dispute. Since the war began, this propaganda has been flagged as false on the ‘social media’ apps familiar in the west, while former Soviet-bloc countries have gone to great lengths to curb the misinformation by banning Kremlin-sponsored media.
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This has however only encouraged Russia to change and improve its tactics. Now it targets encrypted platforms, such as TikTok or, notably, Telegram. To reach particular demographics it uses domestic languages—Spanish for Latin America, Arabic for the middle east—in articles and videos. Pro-Ukraine information tends to be overwhelmingly in English, French or German. Furthermore, Russia has resorted to deep fakes and artificial intelligence to enhance its propaganda efforts.
Pro-Kremlin messaging thus gains more traction and popularity among its target audiences, not only thanks to the power of AI but also because it is tailored by language and application. And this is working: in 2022 among the 141 countries in the United Nations which voted against the Russian aggression, none of the African, middle-eastern or south-American states agreed to impose sanctions to give that vote bite.
The citizens of western countries tend to believe that the information available to them is available to everyone, but not every region has access to the same information and not every piece is as relevant or important in other parts of the globe. The internet is fragmented and includes restricted spaces where governments closely monitor activity, including the web engines and ‘social media’ accounts powered by the governments of Russia, Turkey and China.
Not only are these spaces widely used—roughly a fifth of the world’s internet users use the Chinese web—but they are also clearly Russian-leaning. Here fabricated claims appear, videos of Russian soldiers ‘bravely’ fighting go viral and hashtags such as #IstandWithPutin trend.
Ukraine’s position is so strong in the western world partly because of the narrative that the war pits democracy against dictatorship. This does not however play out as well in other continents where western states were colonisers, for centuries resisting democracy and freedom. Countries with a pro-Russian or neutral stance do not embrace the American narrative of supporting Ukraine in the name of the ‘free world’, especially since in the 20th century the Soviet Union supplied arms and gave political support to liberation movements.
Scratching the surface
Although Ukraine has been incredibly effective in spreading information about the war—through the great public diplomacy of its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and its courage in the face of huge odds—we must not underestimate the power of Russia. The information filling public space in the western world merely scratches the surface of the welter of propaganda disseminated in other spaces of the internet.
While the west sleeps, hoping Russia is alone in prosecuting this war, the Kremlin continues to strengthen relationships with its allies.
Aiste Merfeldaite, having grown up in Lithuania, is a dual bachelor of arts student at Sciences Po and the University of Columbia, studying political science and information science.
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